Communist Party MP issues dire warning over deteriorating economy
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Communist Party lawmaker Weerasumana Weerasinghe says Sri Lanka, experiencing the worst ever post-independence economic crisis, should take tangible measures to streamline revenue collection mechanisms in line with an overall strategy to fight waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence that had caused irreparable damage to the national economy.
MP Weerasinghe said that the failure on the part of the incumbent government to arrest the situation would be catastrophic.
In an interview with The Island, lawmaker Weerasinghe emphasised the responsibility on the part of the Central Bank, Parliament and the government to take remedial measures or face the consequences.
Matara District MP Weerasinghe is the only CP representative in the 145 member SLPP parliamentary group. The CP’s only other contestant Mahesh Almeida (Colombo District) failed in his bid.
Responding to another query, MP Weerasinghe acknowledged that their CP’s efforts to draw the attention of the top SLPP leadership to urgent economic and fiscal reforms had been largely unsuccessful. Perhaps those in authority lacked political will to make decisive interventions, MP Weerasinghe said. Referring to repeated declarations that the government lacked the wherewithal to grant salary increase to striking principals and teachers, lawmaker Weerasinghe said that the government owed an explanation as regards the rapidly deteriorating financial situation.
“I have raised the issues at hand in Parliament and the government parliamentary group meeting as well as on special occasions when we were given an opportunity to express views. However, the government group seems reluctant to recognise the pathetic situation the country is in,” lawmaker Weerasinghe said.
The MP said that the SLPP acted contrary to the pledge to accommodate Dr. G. Weerasinghe on its National List following the last general election in Aug. 2020. Subsequently, Dr. Weerasinghe succeeded CP General Secretary Dew Gunasekera. Of the 29 National List slots, the SLPP won 17. Of the SLPP constituents, the SLFP and NFF received a National List slot each.
“The undeniable truth is our economy is in tatters. Those who blame the developing crisis solely on Covid-19 are deceiving the public. If successive governments followed prudent economic policies, Sri Lanka could have faced the global epidemic in a much better way,” MP Weerasinghe said.
The first time entrant into parliamentary politics, MP Weerasinghe said that as a member of the COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) he realised how corruption steadily eroded public finance. COPA proceedings presented a frightening picture and underscored the failure on the part of the Parliament to at least curb corruption.
MP Weerasinghe said that if COPA proceedings were examined together with COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) and COPF (Committee on Public Finance), they would reveal the ruination of the public sector. Regardless of change of governments, the deterioration continued unabated and the country was on the brink of economic collapse, lawmaker Weerasinghe said.
Lawmaker Weerasinghe warned that when a government failed to manage an economic crisis it would be transformed into social crisis/unrest. Therefore, the government and the Central Bank should act in unison, without further delay to prevent chaos. “We are on the verge of social unrest,” MP Weerasinghe said, urging the top political leadership to keep in their mind that the Central Bank should reflect the national economy.
Referring to COPA proceedings and reports, lawmaker Weerasinghe pointed out how the revenue collection mechanism comprising the Customs, Inland Revenue and the Excise Department failed to achieve basic objectives. Asked whether he addressed this particular issue in parliament, MP Weerasinghe said that he questioned the status of the revenue collection apparatus at the recent debate on the Central Bank’s 2020 report.
Lawmaker Weerasinghe has told Parliament that the three institutions were among most corrupt setups in the country. The CP representative pointed out though President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Feb 2020 appointed a retired Major General Vijitha Ravipriya as the Director General, Customs, however the institution remained the same. MP Weerasinghe stressed that the entire revenue collection apparatus should be overhauled if the political leadership was seriously concerned about sharp drop in government revenue.
MP Weerasinghe said that there was absolutely no point in denying the fact that the revenue collection system deliberately caused situations that deprived the government of due taxes. The entire system was geared to assist those trying to exploit the methods in place to collect taxes, MP Weerasinghe said.
The MP also questioned the rationale in the Customs obtaining sizable part of government revenue for the benefit of Customs personnel. Reference was also made to longstanding legal battle between the Customs and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) as MP Weerasinghe underscored the absurdity in one state institution moving court against another.
Commenting on the abolition of a range of taxes in Dec 2019, MP Weerasinghe said the government should re-consider that decision as obviously the public didn’t receive the benefits. The CP MP said that decision caused massive setback to the government whereas some big companies benefited.
The Treasury lost well over Rs. 500 bn due to abolition of a range of taxes, including PAYE (Pay As You Earn), NBT (Nation Building Tax), Withholding Tax, Capital Gain Tax imposed on the Colombo Stock Exchange, Bank Debit Tax and unprecedented reduction of VAT (Value Added Tax).
The MP said that the 15% VAT and the 2% NBT which amounted to 17% imposed on all goods and services were unified and reduced to 8%, effective from the first of December 2019.
That fatal decision has been taken at the first Cabinet meeting of the incumbent government held on Nov 27, 2019.
MP Weerasinghe acknowledged that the Opposition had raised this issue both in and outside Parliament.
The CP man said that the government should explore the possibility of recovering at least a significant part of massive profits earned by selected companies. This issue could be addressed in Budget 2022, MP Weerasinghe said, urging the government to introduce a national policy in respect of taxes and duties.
MP Weerasinghe said that stability couldn’t be achieved through political maneuvering. “Government’s near two-thirds majority in Parliament and the passage of 20th Amendment with over two-thirds in last Oct do not mean reflect in the public mood,” MP Weerasinghe said.
Commending Sri Lanka’s decision not to seek IMF intervention, MP Weerasinghe said that tax amnesties would never achieve the desired results. Unfortunately, successive governments prescribed same remedies, the MP said, the need for tax policy beneficial to all was the need of the hour. “Direct taxes are probably about 10 percent and indirect taxes 90 percent. Ideally, it should be direct taxes 65 % and indirect taxes 35 %. Our continuing failure to address this issue is an affront on the public.”
Lawmaker Weerasinghe faulted the media for giving time and space for those who engaged in cheap politics. The situation was so bad the government revenue was probably now zero of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) though it was down to 9 percent in 2019. At the time of Dr. N.M. Perera’s tenure as the Finance Minister, the government revenue had been 24 percent of the GDP. According to the MP, one of the primary reasons for the crisis and overall chaotic situation was the wide gap in direct and indirect tax.
MP Weerasinghe said that the government should encourage the public to save money. Perhaps, the government should bring in laws to ensure all students have savings accounts, the MP said, urging the Central Bank to apprise the entire banking sector. “The National Savings Bank was set up to encourage savings. Today, it is just another commercial bank. People’s Bank was meant to spur development. Now, it is too another commercial bank. Let us take meaningful measures to overhaul the national economy. That wouldn’t be possible unless the banking sector was subjected to scrutiny.”
The CP spokesperson said that in spite of repeated promises in the run-up to the Presidential and Parliamentary elections, the government was yet to punish those responsible for Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016. Those who represented the UNP at the time of Treasury bond scams now as members of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) pretended as if Perpetual Treasuries and CBSL didn’t commit the fraud, MP Weerasinghe said.
The CP man admitted that the SLPP suffered due to the absence of proper dialogue among constituents. The situation remained the same nearly two years after the 2019 presidential election, the MP said.
US delaying visa for Security Oversight Committee head
suggests someone else be appointed to that post
MP Weerasekera seeks Speaker’s intervention
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Controversy surrounds an alleged suggestion by the US that Parliament name a member from a minority community to represent the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on National Security, as incumbent Chairman of the committee Rear Admiral (retd.) Sarath Weerasekera, MP, cannot be issued a visa in time for him to join a parliamentary delegation visiting Washington later next month.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has, with USAID funding, organised a 10-day visit for Chairmen of all Oversight Committees. Nearly 20 Oversight Committees function in the current Parliament.
The Oversight Committees also receive the backing of the UNDP. The UN agency has pledged substantial funds for Parliament.
Responding to The Island queries Colombo District lawmaker Weerasekera said that he would write to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena in this regard tomorrow (25). “I sincerely hope the Speaker seeks a clarification from US Ambassador in Colombo Julie Chung.”
MP Weerasekera acknowledged that the US must have been irritated by his criticism of the US role in last year’s uprising that ousted democratically elected President whatever his shortcomings and lapses were.
The SLN veteran said that he had been informed of the US suggestion by a senior parliamentary official. “There should be a plausible explanation regarding their failure to issue me a visa,” the former Navy Chief of Staff said, pointing out that the visit was to commence in the third week of October.
Declaring that he had attended several US courses during his over 30-year career and had also visited the US as a parliamentarian, the former Public Security Minister emphasised that he didn’t have a special interest joining the delegation but the sponsor under any circumstances shouldn’t differentiate.
The US indicated its desire to drop the SLN veteran from the parliamentary delegation close on the heels of Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, Vice Admiral Priyantha Perera concluding an official visit to the US. The Navy Chief attended the 25th International Sea Power Symposium held at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island from 19th to 22nd September 2023.
Having retired in late Oct 2006, Weerasekera successfully contested the Digamadulla electorate on the UPFA ticket. Weerasekera, who now represents the SLPP, was elected to the current Parliament from the Colombo District.
Weerasekera said that he expected Speaker Abeywardena to raise the issue with the US embassy in Colombo.Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader and SLPP Colombo District MP Udaya Gammanpila recently told The Island that both the US and Australia denied him visas.
Fresh controversy over the denial of visa has erupted as a group of government parliamentarians accompanied President Ranil Wickremesinghe to attend the 78th UNGA in New York. The group consisted of Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Premanath C. Dolawatte (all of the SLPP) and Vadiwel Suresh of the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa last week raised the MPs’ group visiting the US at taxpayers’ expense. Speaker Abeywardena chided lawmaker Premadasa by asking him to do the same when he became the President.
MP Weerasekera said that he intended to take up discriminatory practices of the US with the Foreign Ministry as well. The former minister said that Sri Lanka should examine the issue as in the absence of a clear response the country was being humiliated repeatedly.
Since Sri Lanka co-sponsored accountability resolution at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council in Oct. 2015, the US, Australia and Canada announced punitive measures against selected serving and retired officers, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who held the rank of Lt. Colonel at the time he retired in early 1990s soon after the eruption of Eelam War ii.
Canada also slapped travel restrictions on President Mahinda Rajapaksa as well as Gotabaya Rajapaksa whereas the US imposed a travel ban on Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda in April this year. Karannagoda is on record as having said that he never applied for a US visa since leaving the Navy years ago.
US imposed travel ban on Chief of Defence Staff Shavendra Silva in Feb 2020, while Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka too was denied a visa during the yahapalana administration. Maj. Gen. Udaya Perera, one-time Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in Malaysia was denied visa in early Dec 2021. The wartime Director of Operations, Perera, recipient of a degree from the US Army War College was denied entry to the US recently though he has a five-year multiple entry visa issued in August 2019.
State Minister’s claim that SIS infiltrated NTJ: Church seeks clarification
asks govt. to implement PCoI recommendations now
by Shamindra Ferdinando
In the wake of State Defence Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon’s declaration in Parliament that the State Intelligence Service (SIS) had successfully infiltrated the extremist group which carried out near simultaneous suicide attacks on 2019 Easter Sunday, the Catholic Church would like to know whether the Yahapalana government had been aware of the threat before receiving the Indian alert, Rev. Father Cyril Gamini Fernando said.
State Minister Tennakoon told the Parliament on Friday (22) that an intelligence officer, code-named ‘Sonic Sonic’, had infiltrated the group at the risk of his life to obtain vital intelligence.
The SIS is the country’s premier intelligence organisation though the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) is much larger. The government blamed the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) for the attacks which claimed the lives of 269 people, including 45 foreigners.
Rev. Fernando emphasised that the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government owed an explanation as to how the defence establishment had failed to thwart the conspiracy in spite of having penetrated the group.
Pointing out that India thrice alerted Sri Lanka, beginning April 04, 2019, Rev. Fernando said that the lapses on the part of the defence establishment here should be reviewed taking into consideration the State Defence Minister’s claim.
Rev. Fernando said the two-day debate on national security and Easter Sunday attacks had proved how irresponsible and treacherous those who wielded political power could be and how political parties adopted a common strategy to deprive justice to terror victims.
The debate caused more confusion and turmoil than addressing the issues at hand, Rev. Fernando said, urging the government to reveal its stand on the recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on Easter Sunday attacks. “Actually, we got suspicious of the previous government’s intentions when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced a six-member group of MPs to examine the PCoI report,” Rev. Fernando said.
The committee headed by Chamal Rajapaksa included Johnston Fernando, Udaya Gammanpila, Ramesh Pathirana, Prasanna Ranatunga and Rohitha Abeygunawardena was appointed on Feb. 19, 2021
Rev. Fernando asked the government to disclose actions taken in respect of recommendations made by the PCoI. Supreme Court Justice Janak de Silva chaired the PCoI. The other members of the CoI were Court of Appeal Judge Bandula Karunaratne, retired Court of Appeal Judge Sunil Rajapaksa, retired High Court Judge Bandula Atapattu and retired Justice Ministry Secretary W M. M. R. Adikari. Justice de Silva handed over the report to the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Feb 01, 2021.
Asked to comment on former President Maithripala Sirisena’s call for UN intervention to initiate a fresh inquiry in the wake of Channel 4 allegations pertaining to Easter Sunday carnage, Rev. Fernando stressed that the urgent need was to implement the PCoI recommendations. The CoI recommendations couldn’t be discarded in the guise of fresh investigations, Rev. Fernando said, adding that the PCoI established by President Sirisena was endorsed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The National Catholic Committee for Justice to Easter Sunday Attack Victims, in a letter dated July 12, 2021, sought an explanation from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa why his government had delayed implementation of PCoI recommendations having spent a huge amount of taxpayers’ money on the critically important initiative.
Referring to their appeal on July 12, 2021, Rev. Fernando said that the PCoI recommended that the Attorney General consider initiating criminal proceedings against MP Sirisena under any suitable provision in the Penal Code. “We would like to know the status of the AG’s response,” the Church spokesperson said, pointing out that the PCoI asserted how the then Premier and incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s lax approach towards Islamic extremism facilitated the terror project.
Rev. Fernando said that the government couldn’t wish the CoI report to disappear as the public and the international community were aware of its contents though certain sections were still hidden in the guise of national security.
Rev. Fernando said that the PCoI had recommended criminal proceedings against retired DIG Sisira Mendis (Chief of National Intelligence) and Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena (Director, SIS) under any suitable provision in the Penal Code. Pointing out that Jayawardena over the years had reached the topmost position a senior DIG could achieve and was one of the contenders for the IGP post, Rev. Fernando said that the Parliament owed an explanation why an unsuccessful attempt was made to invite him to brief the MPs last week.
Rev. Fernando said that the PCoI made recommendations in respect of Senior DIG Nandana Munasinghe (now retired), DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon, SP Sanjeewa Bandara, SSP Chandana Atukorale, B.E.I. Prasanna, ASP Sisila Kumara, CI Sarath Kumarasinghe, CI Sagara Wilegoda et al.
The Church spokesperson noted that ex-Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and ex-IGP Pujith Jayasundara had been acquitted on Feb 18, 2022.
Rev. Fernando said that the people had a right to know the status of PCoI recommendation to the Public Service Commission (PSC) that it consider taking disciplinary action against State Counsel Malik Azeez and Deputy Solicitor General Azad Navavi for their lapses which facilitated the Easter Sunday carnage.
X-Press Pearl insurers make interim payment – Justice Minister
The insurers of the ‘X-Press Pearl’ ship, which sank off the western coast of Sri Lanka two years ago, had made an interim payment to the Sri Lankan government, Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told journalists on Sunday (24).
The payment would cover the cost incurred by the Maritime Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) for the beach clean-up operations and compensation for the fishermen affected by the maritime disaster, the Minister said.
Sri Lanka’s Treasury had received 890,000 US dollars and 16 million rupees (around 49,400 dollars) as the interim payment, the Minister said, adding that the second interim environmental assessment report compiled by the MEPA-convened expert committee had placed the environmental damage from the X-Press Pearl disaster at 6.4 billion dollars.
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